Eggy Dates at NANDINE – From Kurdistan to Camberwell

Eggy dates at Nandine in Camberwell is the perfect breakfast to showcase Kurdish cuisine

I was born by the mountains. I was born in the mist. Who knows exactly how or when I came to be. All I know is that it was long ago. And that time is best measured in generations and not in years.

I was born from people’s lips, as they gathered around the fireside, my words spilling out in the same breath as their old stories and tales. Words that mingle as they drift over the flames, forming and reforming. And in this way, I am forever being renewed.

And so it is. Generation to generation. From village to village. I am cast through space and time like pollen sailing in the wind.

*

For much of the time I lie dormant, a seed nestled amongst the hidden valleys of the mind, my soul seamless with circuitry, my existence a constellation of electrical impulses. I wait patiently, for soon my time will come.

It is the stove that draws me out. Like the night draws out the jackal. Instinct transformed into action, I emerge from the subconscious, and begin to work and guide hands that are wizened with age and life.

Now I am no longer an idea, all abstract and concealed. I am a verb. I am alive. I am presence. Eggs are beaten. Oil is smoking. Bread is pulled and torn.

A little child is watching as her grandmother ambles around the firepit. Ancient mountains loom large in the distance, solemn witnesses to this forthcoming act of inheritance.

The child observes. She studies the movements. She notes the precise point at which her grandmother refrains from stirring the eggs. And the requisite sizzle they make as they impact on the hot oil. A faint billow of steam rises up; it reminds her of the mist that meanders through the mountains.

Together they sit and eat. Little is said between them, but the child is enthralled.

She loves how the eggs are so light and feathery, all fluffed up like the ripples of clouds that congregate over the jagged peaks outside. Underneath them, shredded samun bread, soaked earth-black by a dousing of sweet date syrup. A smattering of walnuts, poppy and sesame seeds adorn the top.

This is what I am born to be. Helka doshâw. Eggs with molasses made from dates or grapes. A dish honed over generations. A dish to stave off the mountain cold.

*

She doesn’t realise it then, but as the child eats, she is consuming the culture and geography of the Kurdish homeland. A proud land of peaks and plains.

A land however that finds itself subsumed into that of others – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – who, through the fortuitous winds of history, have become its governors and overlords. The child meanwhile just enjoys the eggs. My eggs.

Time and again she joins her grandmother as she cooks, and each time she watches on assiduously. Nothing is missed.

During those visits, I can feel myself drawn into her: it is inevitable, for her thrill at this dish is as tangible as static. And when her mind finally invites me in, it’s like a host welcoming a guest into their home.

I settle myself into a cosy nook in her mind, gently testing out the environs, running my fingertips along the mental fittings and furnishings, gently pressing to evaluate their feel and give. Yes, this place feels right. She will look after me well.

*

Years later, even after her grandmother has long departed, she still continues to remember those cherished moments by the stove. In so doing, she senses her grandmother’s presence. Her food. Her love.

Now a girl of thirteen, she begins helping out her elders in the kitchen. Chopping the onions. Salting the meat.

Then one day, something tugs deep inside of her. Something very specific. A sizzle of oil and a billow of steam, mist meandering through the mountains. She reaches in and finds an unexpected treasure from long ago.

At first, her initial actualizations of me are rather tentative and uncertain. She stirs the eggs a little too vigorously; she is perhaps a tad too eager with the molasses.

But soon enough she masters me. She learns how to crack the shells so the yolks and whites drop neatly into the bowl, whisking them round and round. She revels in how they eventually envelope each other, like two desert snakes swallowing each other’s tail.

And when she pours them over the stove, she delights in how they curdle in front of her very eyes. One moment liquid, the next solid: she notes the transformation and imagines how one day, perhaps things will change for her people too.

*

Over many years, she seeks me out. And each time I would reward her. I become a loyal companion and a fulcrum in the family routine. A reassuring presence and a bringer of joy.

She grows into a young woman. And I stand with her throughout. All seems so well. But within a heartbeat, the cowbells fall silent. For out of the mist, Saddam’s soldiers have arrived.

They proceed to subjugate the land with guns and gas and callousness. The young woman and her family have no choice but to pack up and flee. Just in time too: by the end, there is little left of the town.

They keep moving, always moving. Troops and tanks roam everywhere, and the family must press through the cover of night to avoid them. Still, the bombs continue to fall all around them.

After nine days of trudging, they finally reach a border – one that neither they nor their kin truly recognise, but at this point in time it becomes a vital shield. So into Iran they slip, taking me along with them.

Up ahead by the roadside, they are duly greeted by their distant family, their warm embraces awash with gratitude and relief. Back at their new home, they are welcomed with a platter of kalana bread, stuffed with cheese and wild herbs from the local hills. The young woman will never forget the taste: it will forever remind her of safety.

*

For four years, the family make a home for themselves in Iranian Kurdistan. Throughout that time, the young woman likes to regularly visit the kitchens of her cousins and aunts, picking up recipes and ideas as a bumblebee flits between the flowers of the mountains.

After losing the home she once knew, and with a future that’s full of uncertainty and foreboding, she finds solace in the familiar rhythms and rituals of the stove. It reminds her too of her grandmother, whom she continues to miss deeply.

One day, she watches on as a cousin toasts and grinds cumin seeds, sprinkling them over a hot pan where slivers of onion and minced lamb are browning. She makes note of the texture and the release of a heady fragrance that wafts around the stove. She observes how it’s then spooned out and encased with a layer of rice paste; she finds the way it’s cradled so oddly soothing.

The patties are then moulded into little torpedo shapes and deep-fried until crisp. “Kubba” – she scrawls into a little notebook that she’s brought along from home. She proceeds to write out the whole recipe, making sure not to miss a single detail.

At another house, she observes more members of her family cook okra with beans, and finds herself curious how, rather than the black-eyed beans of her childhood, they use green beans that have been dried under the summer sun. She nibbles on some coriander leaves used to garnish the stew, and instantly admires its vivid citrus flavour. Again, she notes it all down.

At the next home, she learns how to coat the aubergines under ash on the firepit, leaving them long enough so they capture the smoke and security of the hearth. She sees how they are then pureed into a smooth paste, and notes the precise texture that is achieved.

She carefully documents all these recipes, and in so doing, her little notebook becomes more than just an impromptu cookbook, but a record of her flight, a reflection of the hospitality of her kin, and a rich testament to the culinary traditions of her people.

She toys with the idea of adding me onto those pages too. No need, she dismisses. I am already so imprinted onto her soul, there is no risk of misplacing me. And besides, it would only occupy precious space: who knew what other recipes would need collecting?

Sure enough, as the seasons turn, so do the pages of the notebook; they become ever more laden with ink and crammed with recipes. She meets a young man, and cooks the recipes for him too. Including me – helka doshâw. Before long, they decide to marry.

Together they return home to Iraq, but again the situation soon becomes unstable. They seek sanctuary in Turkey, but find this an unwelcoming place for Kurdish refugees; life is a constant struggle. In the end they need to get out, and eventually they find their way to what will become their new home. London.

*

Food is never far from her heart however, even at this most desperate of times. She sets up a roadside stall, and earns a scratch living from selling sandwiches amid the concrete and fumes of the Elephant & Castle roundabout.

Initially she makes the stock fillings that Londoners are so accustomed to. Then, as the business grows, she starts throwing in a sprinkling of za’atar here, or a pinch of sumac there. That’s how to liven up a cheese sandwich! – she reckons.

Indeed, the locals agree and queues start to form. An idea suddenly comes to mind. She tentatively starts to cook the recipes from that old tattered notebook, as well as those from her grandmother’s stove, and starts selling them alongside the sandwiches – kubba, dolma, and a rich stew of okra and beans.

Word spreads. The queues become longer. Such is the success, she soon opens a café in Camberwell, and calls it Nandine, named after the Kurdish word for ‘kitchen’. She expands the menu to include more of those dishes.

The Kurdish people do not have a homeland. So she makes special effort to make her place feel like a home. She decorates it with artefacts and icons from her childhood, as well as the knitted pouches that Kurdish shepherds traditionally use to carry their provisions.

Then one day, whilst in Nandine’s kitchen, she abruptly conjures me from the depths of her mind. She cracks the eggs and pours the oil, heating it until it starts to smoke. Now there is that sizzle, and then a faint billow of steam: it still reminds her of the mist that meandered between the mountains.

Bread is pulled and shredded, and soaked with sweet date syrup, a comforting pillow for those fluffy eggs to rest. She throws a sprinkling of poppy seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts, and promptly lifts the dish and lays it gently on a table in front of a customer, a regular whom she trusts to test this dish.

“Eggy dates!” she announces.

And in those eggy dates are not just the history and geography of the Kurdish people, but the story of one Kurdish woman in particular: her infatuation with food and cooking, her love and devotion for her grandmother, her experience of displacement and hospitality and displacement again, and her utter determination to champion the cause of her people.

Her name is Pary Baban. And me? I am the recipe for helka doshâw.

*

 

Firstly, a heartfelt thank you to Pary. It was such a privilege spending the best part of a morning with her at Nandine, learning of her family and experiences, and then getting to write this piece. I am very conscious that it’s very much her story, and that of her family, and so it was really important for me to capture it as sensitively and meaningfully as I could.

I’m also mindful that times are tough for so many right now – having a family business put on hold is such a challenge, and my thoughts are very much with the Baban family as they try to ride through this lockdown. Thanks to their wonderful food and hospitality, they have built up such a devoted and loyal following, and I am sure this will make a big difference (- and do feel free to shout out in the Comments if you’re a regular!)

I’m certainly not the only one to have been captivated by Pary and her story. Sophie Reid has written a whole thesis on Nandine for her Masters degree, no less! It is a tremendous piece of work, and I just loved its exploration of various themes, including: the family as torch-bearers and ‘translators’ of Kurdish food; the act of cooking as a living tradition; the Kurdish reverence for the mountains; and on homeliness as both a reflection of hospitality and of political expression.

Finally, for more family stories of food and migration, please feel free to check out my own family story, and that of my friend Shahnaz Ahsan, in our collaborative piece: Curry & Kneidlach.

Nandine

Nandine

Portrait of Pary Baban, chef proprietor of Nandine

Pary Baban

Nandine

The Kurdish breakfast at Nandine comprises cheese, yoghurt, olives, walnuts, and bread

Kurdish breakfast

Nandine

The Kuridish mezze is a perfect assemblage of various dishes - kubba, dolma, humous, olives, muhummara and other delights.

Nandine

Menu description of Kurdish mezze at Nandine, listing various dishes

Kurdish mezze

Nandine

French fries topped with Kurdish beharat spices, tamarind and pomegranate seeds

Beharat fries

Nandine

The baklava at Nandine in Camberwell are the best in London, dripping with rosewater syrup, spices and nuts.

Baklava

Nandine

Jars of various loose leaf teas including floral and fruit teas

Time for tea

Nandine

Kurdish shepherd's pouches decorate the interior of Nandine in Camberwell

Kurdish shepherd’s pouches

Nandine

Nandine restaurant and cafe in Camberwell London is a torchbearer for Kurdish cuisine

21 Comments

  1. Dawn Nicol
    23rd April 2020 / 11:20 pm

    Wonderful words as always Aaron

    • aaron
      Author
      26th April 2020 / 7:34 am

      Thanks loads for getting in touch Dawn, and for the lovely comment too.

  2. 25th April 2020 / 9:23 am

    Aaron what a beautiful read! You tell the story so well. I have never had Kurdish food but am going to make an effort to visit Nandine

    • aaron
      Author
      26th April 2020 / 7:36 am

      Thanks so much, Neha! Nandine’s food is just wonderful – and you’ll be well looked after too. You’d love it there, I’m sure! Really thinking of them at this time..

  3. 25th April 2020 / 12:31 pm

    Beautiful storytelling as always Aaron and what a story it is. The Kurdish breakfast looks very delicious and actually I’m quite intrigued about Kurdish food in general after reading this post.

    • aaron
      Author
      26th April 2020 / 7:39 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Bejal! I could easily work my way through its fabulous menu – everything is just a joy. Showcasing Kurdish food is really important to the family, and a visit to Nandine is a wonderful way of learning about the cuisine, and in some ways its culture too..

  4. Emma @ Adventures of a London Kiwi
    25th April 2020 / 11:20 pm

    Words fail me as to just how beautiful this is Aaron. I can’t wait to try this piece of such personal history once we’re able to move again!

    • aaron
      Author
      26th April 2020 / 7:43 am

      Thanks so much, Emma – that’s really kind of you. You’d love it there. I know you’re such a brunch fiend, and I can’t think of a better place to while away a whole morning, slowly working your way through the menu, and doing your writing too. In fact, with some Kurdish coffee or rose-petal tea by your side, and a platter of THE best baklava in town, it’s just a joy to be there. Do go when it’s all over, you’d love it!..

  5. Becky Pryse
    26th April 2020 / 8:32 am

    What a beautiful piece. Nandine is going on my “things-to-look-forward-to pc” list. Thanks

    • aaron
      Author
      26th April 2020 / 8:36 am

      Thanks so much, Becky! Yes, can’t recommend this place highly enough. Really hoping they can get back on their feet soon..

  6. Heather Iqbal
    26th April 2020 / 9:52 pm

    I love Nandine, and it’s so wonderful to learn more about the story behind it, and so beautifully written. Really wonderful to read, thank you.

    • aaron
      Author
      27th April 2020 / 7:42 pm

      Thanks so much for getting in touch, Heather – especially as you have first-hand experience of the place. It’s such a special restaurant in lots of ways, one that generates genuine feelings of devotion. Really glad you liked the piece too! Thanks again!

  7. Rukia
    27th April 2020 / 8:49 am

    I was so moved by these words, so beautifully told. In my mind I was trying to locate that sandwich shop, near Elephant & Castle round about, I lived so close by. I feel like I missed out on a little treasure. I wish Nandine all the best.

    • aaron
      Author
      27th April 2020 / 7:44 pm

      Thanks so much for getting in touch, Rukia. And your kinds words too. Really glad you liked the piece. And yes, Nandine really is a little gem..

  8. 28th April 2020 / 1:26 pm

    Another story told with great sensitivity for its roots and main characters – it made me think of my paternal grandmother’s and father’s immigration stories, the hardships they faced and how their faith gave them strength during those difficult, dark days. I truly hope the Baban family are able to keep afloat and that we can all visit them once lockdown has been lifted – you’ve definitely reached a new audience with this piece, Aaron! Absolutely mesmerising, passionate storytelling, as always. x

    • aaron
      Author
      30th April 2020 / 10:49 am

      Thanks so much Seetal for your lovely words. It felt such a privilege to write this piece, hearing Pary relate her stories, being amazed by her courage and fortitude, and just being in raptures over her sheer love of cooking, the deliciousness of these traditional dishes, and the role that food has played in her life. Yes, we must go once it’s all over – you’d love it, I’m sure! x

  9. Simon Day
    28th April 2020 / 10:50 pm

    Wow, food and memories are so interlinked. I want to climb in to this story and experience the tastes and aromas for myself, made all the richer for having learnt a little of what lies behind them. What an inheritance to receive…and to pass on. I loved reading this so much and I will visit as soon as I can.

    Simon

    • aaron
      Author
      30th April 2020 / 10:52 am

      Thanks so much Simon – really touched by your words. I was so awed myself with Pary’s story, and so lucky to be able to write about it. I’m glad it resonated with you so. And yes, do visit – I think you’d really love the place..

  10. 30th April 2020 / 1:12 pm

    I’m not sure I understand how you create this magic, some kind of alchemy in which your beautifully crafted words turn into feelings and images and happiness and melancholy. This is utterly compelling. What a richness of history and food Pary has brought with her to London. I regret not visiting Nadine before I left London. All the very best to Pary, and of course, to you as always.

  11. zoe
    6th June 2020 / 10:12 pm

    wonderful review! i have always enjoyed eating out around the elephant/camberwell green and i’m off to check the location now. i do hope ‘Nadine’ manages to open soon.

    • aaron
      Author
      14th June 2020 / 2:46 pm

      Thanks so much, Zoe! I’m sure Nandine would love to have you round once they’re able to open again..

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